Friday, 29 May 2009

Tapas par excellence – Dehesa, Soho

The first time I ever had tapas was not in the sunshine in Seville, Valencia or many of the other splendid cities of Spain, but on a grey September evening in Clapham in South London on my first day in the Northern Hemisphere. Heavy D took it upon himself to introduce me to a dose of instant Iberian culture and we went to the venerable institution that is La Rueda on the Clapham High Street which he declared was as authentically Spanish as a sombrero. Indeed. Nevertheless La Rueda introduced me to things such as gazpacho (cold soup?), chorizo and Pulpo a la Gallega - all of which were exotic dishes for a boy from the Antipodes.
Many years on and several visits to the aforementioned Spanish cities later, I’d turned into one of those bores who complain that you could never get the quality of food, not to mention dollops of sunshine, that you seemed to trip over on every corner in Spain. This of course has been proved patently wrong several times in recent years with the gorgeous but expensive Fino and the wonderful Brindisa in Borough Market two of the standouts. For food not sunshine.
Last night the Northerner and yours truly finally made it to Dehesa off Carnaby Street after several, admittedly half-hearted attempts previously. This place has been ‘famous’ amongst foodies and fashionistas and media folks for a while now, and you can see why. Superb food and wine, and a nice crowded and buzzy ambience make it a perfect place for the chattering classes to swarm to, and eavesdrop if one is so inclined.
We were sat next to a group of actors one of whom seemed to speak endlessly about the sacrifices his art had to make for commercialism in trying to justify his auditioning for a cereal ad. On the other side was a couple who just had to be there as a consequence of an online dating site, so bereft were they of anything resembling a conversation. Example – have you ever been to Australia? Yes it’s great, you should go.
Ganton Street where Dehesa resides is now a destination in itself with the likes of The Diner, Zebrano and Mangosteen not to mention a couple of old boozers for good measure. And last night the summer evening saw groups of fashion retailers, hairdressers and tourists looking for ‘action’ drinking themselves into a pre-club frenzy. Quality. But Dehesa is the place you, and everyone else judging by the queue, want to go, and I must say it was well worth the wait.
And with no sangrias, cow bells, sol beer it’s a far cry from dear old La Rueda and the better for it. Although Heavy D might have something to say about that.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Ten rounds at the Ten Bells

Defining what and who is cool is a tricky thing. Of course there are some absolutes. Obama is cool. Gordon Brown is not. Samuel L Jackson is cool. Lenny Henry is not. Bat for Lashes are cool. Coldplay are not. London and New York are cool. New Zealand and Australia, and in fact anyone from there are / is not. That's what you get for being born in the Antipodes.
Friday night lights and the plan was to meet Scary Spice at Vinyl in Camden where her new boyfriend was hosting a club night. Excellent - a chance to strut my moves and embarrass myself in front of a new audience. Except a last minute call from Scary said there was a change of plan and we couldn't go. There were a lot of reasons she said. Not the right time, place etc. But reading between the many lines I think it's because although the Northerner is cool, yours truly is not. That's what you get for being born in New Zealand.
Undaunted, and feeling flush after a recent windfall the call went out and I met Heavy D and the Northerner at the Ten Bells on Commercial Street. This pub is apparently the local of Alexa Chung (who is cool) and others from the edgier music set. The place is full of graphic designer, fashion students, music heads and other creatives all of whom are most definitely cool. And Heavy D was there who most definitely is not. The pub was around in the time of Jack the Ripper, and to be honest, it looks as if little has been done in terms of decorations since then. The walls are still covered with the original tiles (very cool) with one area decorated with the most amazing handpainted mosaic. But of course you are there to spend a night on rather then admire the tiles, and the Bells comes up trumps on that front. The wine and beer selections are basic but decent, and with the now de rigeur 80's soundtrack pumping in the background (rock and goth that is cool, rather then pop that is not) this place kicks off. We stood outside with the other street urchins for the first half of the evening to make the most of the warm summer evening. Retreating inside around 830pm and the place was settling into that early doors delirium where the punters having long since abandoned their plans for the rest of the evening. Which include Heavy, the Northerner and yours truly ,who didn't leave as late as we might normally but were certainly worse for wear. I believe tired and emotional is the term.
The Bells is one of my favourite pubs in London and Friday didn't disappoint in terms of music, ambience, and festive spirit. That's why its taken me two days to write this blog. And who knows, if I go there often enough I might one day be mistaken for being cool.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Little Colombia in Brixton - Coma Y Punto, Brixton Market

I have never been to South America, so nearly everything I know about the continent is based on what I've seen on TV. So Brazil is samba, caipirinhas, Copa Cobana and beautiful people. Argentina is the tango, malbec, steak and beautiful people. And Colombia is ... drugs and beautiful people. Of course that's a ridiculous thing to think, but I think it's fair to say that Colombia has an image problem.
Rolling through Brixton Market on Saturday and the Northerner and I were a tad hungover after a session in two of our favourites the night before - the Old Red Cow in Smithfields and Brazas in Tulse Hill - and I most definitely was in need of food. And plenty of it. 
The market was rather untypically crowded with tourists - clearly Time Out has been going large on promoting Brixton - which meant that many of our favourite eating spots were full of people with backpacks or cameras or both. Fortunately the Northerner remember a cafe which we now know as Coma Y Punto, sitting in the heart of what is Little Colombia in South London. 
There's a hackneyed old phrase that says you can tell the quality of the place by the people who eat there, and the fact that Coma is full off Colombians - old and young, family groups and couples - is testimony to the wonderful South American ambience, and hearty portions of top quality Colombian food on offer. The portions are simply massive, yet our slender South American co-diners seemed to demolish their plates with ease. The Northerner and I started with a divine shared starter of Yuca fritters - I'm not quite sure what they are, but they're delicious, before attempting and failing to complete our mains. These dishes that included fried fish, pork belly, beans, corn bread, salsa, avocado, more yuca fritters and the best sausages I think I've ever tasted. And trust me, I've eaten my share of sausages. Something that is very evident when you see me.  The food was simply superb ,and the South American family ambience, complete with a large plasma TV showing a very long video promoting Colombia (what else) was lovely. You can't get a beer or wine there, but that's not the point of the place. You  get great coffee, and you get to practice your Spanish with some lovely Colombians. Time Out voted this place one of the better Cheap Eats. I'd go as far to say as its one of the best. But maybe I'm biased. 

Friday, 15 May 2009

The return of free drinks - City of London Club, Old Broad Street

Client entertainment, jollies, freebies or however you describe it, comes in many forms. In London you can up attend a fancy dress party and get drunk.   Or you can prepare a meal Hells Kitchen style and get drunk. Go ten pin bowling in funky Brick Lane and get drunk. Watch a major football or rugby game and get drunk. Take part, or witness a five aside Penalty Shoot Out competition with a former England goalkeeper and get drunk. Do you detect a theme here? 
The successful events manage to subtly sell a brand, product or service to clients while proving to be memorable social occasions. But of course not all of them work. I once worked for a FTSE 100 corporate where I had the misfortune to witness four very middle-aged senior managers complete with spreading bellies attempt a dance routine to Will Smith's Men in Black. While clad in black polos and wraparound Ray Bans. In legendary London night club Fabric. It was at best a little odd and at worst, very confusing. Oh, and it was very, very embarrassing. 
The credit crunch has put an end to most corporate gigs in the City, so it was with pleasure that I accepted an invitation to celebrate the first birthday of a fledgling consulting firm, at the esteemed, and very stuffy City of London Club on Old Broad Street. 
The City of London Club is a 19th century building sat in the heart of the financial district which with its grand but subtle exterior in stark contrast to its rather faded and tired interiors seems intent on depicting a nation living on past glories.  This theme continues inside the building where busts,  statues and pictures celebrate the great and good of Old Britannia, but are noticeably absent of anyone who has achieved anything since World War II. The party, if you can describe a gathering of mostly male, middle-aged, grey suited city workers as that, was relatively festive as though people had not enjoyed a free drink for a long time. 
However as a venue the club works very well. The hosting and service are not the slightest bit stuffy as you might expect but in fact very homely and welcoming. The wine which was very good was poured both generously and frequently. The canapes were delicious and abundant. And the place was buzzing as guests began to  size each other up as a potential buyers or employers, or both. There was also something wonderfully English about quaffing a glorious Bordeaux and chatting about the end of the banking system, while under the shadow of a huge, dare I say over-sized, portrait of Lord Nelson, with the Ting Tings playing on the sound system. Only in London. 
The City Club is certainly no Shoreditch House, and has more in common with the Groucho Club in style and ambience, then its East London peers. (I know Groucho Club regulars will rightly be aggrieved at that comparison, but I have very few members clubs to compare to). But the interior shoddiness somehow makes it more human and more accessible then the anomalies in Mayfair and therefore is to be recommended. Well the next time your suppliers have money to spend that is. 

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Vivat Bacchus, Farringdon

A few years ago I had the good fortune to spend 11 days in sunny Cape Town. Ostensibly we were there on a business trip, but in reality we did a lot of lounging around the hotel pool, eating at the finest restaurants, taking in the sights and sounds of Table Mountain and the beaches, and bar-crawling and nightclubbing every single night. Oh and just occasionally we did some work. One of the highlights of that work intensive trip, was the vineyard tour around Stellenbosch where the Acton boy and I were introduced the best wines that SA had to offer courtesy of Lucia - one of the Northerners best friends and then owner of the biggest and by reputation the best wine shop in Stellenbosch. Great days.
Roll on to 2009 and once again I am about to sample the finest wines that SA has to offer, albeit this time at a converted office block in Farringdon (see picture) that is the site of the wonderful Vivat Bacchus. Don't let the exterior put you off. This is place is a wine lover’s (oenophile’s?)idea of heaven with some 18,000 bottles of the finest that South Africa and the rest of the world has to offer.
I was there for a wine-tasting with the Analyst, who accumulates hobbies and new skills like I do hangovers. Her latest is wine, and these tastings are part of her ‘research’, which suits me just fine.
A small group of mostly South Africans, with some Brits and Americans thrown in for good measure settled into the session in which one of the co-owners Gerrie introduced to the delights of several bottles of South Africa’s finest. This was all going just fine, until he started calling on us for comments.
Describing wine is one of the many things missing from my repertoire of skill - something that was confirmed very quickly when I declared that one fine merlot tasted like port (it wasn’t and it didn’t) and another was 'good stuff'.
I then compounded these schoolboy errors by describing one wine as marmalade - based on a comment I had heard the wine master make earlier. Except he had been talking about a Chardonnay and this was a Syrah. Cue rolling of eyes from the Analyst; muffled laughter from the large Afrikaans bloke sat next to me.
Nevertheless we sampled our way through 7, or maybe it was 9, bottles of cracking wine which for £15 represented great value. Everyone was in great spirits and clearly a lot of the people there were regulars as was evident when most people headed downstairs as apparently is tradition, to sample the steak special.
Vivat Bacchus was absolutely buzzing and very busy, particularly for a Monday night, and it is definitely somewhere I will try again both for the wine-tastings, and next time to sample some food.
Hard work I know, but I think I’m up to the challenge.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Prince Regent, Herne Hill

A band will often speak of the difficult second album, whereas in cinema it is trilogies that often expose a director’s weakness. The Godfather Part 3 was terrible compared to its two predecessors. As was the third Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Terminator, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard (although some might argue that the second was the worst) struggled by their third iterations. Even Police Academy saw a drop in standards.
And thus the final story in the ‘Three Amigos do London' trilogy has been fraught with the challenges that Coppola, Spielberg and err …the guy who did Police Academy no doubt suffered in bringing part three of their masterpieces to a screen near you. In my case writers block, rewrites, endless coffees and the small but hardly insignificant obstacle of holding down a day job.
So, Bank Holiday Monday and three days of hard partying had taken its toll. We had eaten and drank our way through the best venues that Borough Market, Spitalfields, Brick Lane and Shoreditch had to offer so it seemed only right that the story finished where it all began back in the Dirty South.
The Prince Regent in Herne Hill used one of the rougher pubs in the area, which given its proximity to Brixton and Tulse Hill is saying something. One critic event went as far to say that popping in for a drink there was like walking into a branch meeting of the BNP. Harsh and unfair, but you get the point. However a gastropub makeover in 2005 saw it lose its previous scruffiness, whilst retaining its original Victorian pub charm, and quickly become the favourite eating and drinking ground for the areas middle class punters.
The Regent was named as one of the top three gastropubs in London last year by the Observer Food Monthly, no doubt in part helped by the fact that their leading food critic Jay Rayner is a local. Nevertheless it gives you an indication of the quality of the place, something quickly appreciated by the ravenous Amigos and Northerner as they devoured salmon, burgers, bangers and mash and copious amounts of top quality wine and beers all in the space of two hours. By the time the Vice Consul showed up all of us were in shouting and gesticulating mode, not even slightly interested in listening to other people. Great company then. Back to the pub, which manages that nice trick of being very family (and therefore child) friendly while still remaining a very grown up venue. The garden bar is a glorious suntrap, the food is top quality, and the range of top notch wine and beers on offer surpasses any other pub of recent memory. You don’t find hipsters or many pretty young things there, but it has that great local country pub feel without being the slightest bit twee or faux rural.
The final word must go to the Amigos whose social stamina over the Bank Holiday weekend did so much to make my week at work after they had departed, very, very difficult. The Regent is ‘ace’ and they can’t wait to be back. We are bracing ourselves for their return.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The Carpenters Arms, Bethnal Green

A lot of people I know, including my good self, share a fascination with criminals. Not your average inner city crackhead of course – the ones that rob teenagers and elderly women, and deal drugs. But cool iconic criminals as portrayed in The Godfather, The Sopranos and The Wire. The ones who rob without care, murder innocent people, and deal drugs. The UK equivalent of these glamour crims is the Krays, who neither looked nor probably sang like the Kemp brothers from Spandau Ballet, but were by all accounts very much the society rogues. According to local folklore they also owned a lot of pubs around the East End, and one that was allegedly owned by their dear mum and has become a destination for hip and pretty young things alike is the Carpenters Arms off Brick Lane.
The Three Amigos were still in town and ready for action, so after a superb coffee or two at the wonderful Nude Espresso on Hanbury Street and a spot of vintage shopping on Brick Lane, we decided it was time for drinks and headed up to the Carpenters. This cracking little venue has clearly been refurbished since the days that the terrible twins ruled the East, but it positively oozes atmosphere and style. With an extensive drinks selection, great food and wall-to-wall pretty and trendy young things the place seems to have it all. The fact that it’s all packed into a space the size of a caravan is a challenge, but no one seemed to mind the cosiness. Although the Northerner did knock over a guy on crutches and I managed to elbow a young woman square in the face. Class.
Amigo 2 and I rolled through several samples of quality lager, while Amigos 1 and 3 joined the Northerner in putting to rest a few bottles of wine as we relived our previous nights efforts which saw the truth succumb to exaggeration. Anything for a laugh this lot.
As voices were raised and listening became an unwanted optional extra, we thought it was time to head off in search of food and music, which we duly found at the Diner in Shoreditch. But back to the Carpenters Arms, which may no longer house the glamour criminals of yesteryear nor be as spacious as some of its nearby competitors, but it is a top little pub. Great drinks, food, clientele, and atmosphere and of course the spectre of the Krays, just to make you feel that little bit edgier.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Boro in the Borough – Black and Blue, Borough Market

Farmers Markets have become very fashionable in London over the last few years. Every middle class suburb worth its salt proudly has a market of its own, where on a either a weekly or monthly basis you can buy all sorts of farm reared items from ducks eggs to fine cheeses, with of course a large selection of meat, game and poultry. Much like a supermarket but outdoors, with less choice and more expensive. The only thing you will not see at any of these markets are farmers, which pretty much tells you all that you need to know about life in London. Not so Borough Market though, the original and probably best ‘farmers’ market in London town, which in recent years has been transformed into both a tourist and social destination.
The Three Amigos had descended on London for the Bank Holiday intent on a weekend of drinking, talking and errr… drinking and talking. Fresh out of Manchester but made in Middlesbrough the Amigos come complete with stories for every occasion and a seemingly endless appetite for bars, pubs, restaurants and music. The perfect weekend companions. Despite struggling with hangovers and sleep deprivation, Saturday night saw the Amigos, the Northerner, the Vice Consul and yours truly head to Borough Market for a night of metaphorical carnage at Black and Blue.
Black and Blue specialises in steak, steak and more steak. Okay you can get fish there, and they do nod their farmers’ hats to vegetarians with a couple of salads. But this place is about top quality meat and plenty of it. Its got a great bar area, and as you don’t have to book is always busy and buzzing with its mix of locals, returning customers and stray tourists who didn’t book a table at Roast. After a sharperner at the wonderful Market Porter pub, we settled into a steady supply of drinks and food as the Amigos regaled us with tales of failed burglaries (not by them might I hasten to add) and the like while working our way through a half dozen bottles of wine or more. Splendid food, cracking atmosphere and the never-ending stream of anecdotes made for a great night. So good in fact that when we went for the obligatory post dinner drink / nightcap we were not allowed into a pub because the six foot 7 bouncer said we were in possession of contraband. Not drugs or weapons of course but vacuum-sealed sausages courtesy of the Vice Consul. Chorizo and the like. I blame the Amigos.